Genre, as a tool for cinematic analysis, didn't really come into its own until the 1960s. Drawing on their literary predecessors, critics during this period were able to develop and deploy the key tenets of genre theory in their efforts to analyze the Studio Era films of the '30s and '40s. These tools continue to shape our own filmic interactions today, and while few have turned their critical eye toward questions of genre and gaming, there is no better place to start than the survival/horror genre.
While many of survival/horror's conventions can be traced back to early home consoles and arcade cabinets, most consider Capcom's Sweet Home to be the first true survival/horror game. Atari's Alone in the Dark, which debuted three years later, brought the genre to the U.S. Since Alone, little has changed.
In 2005, however, Capcom released Resident Evil 4. Both a critical and commercial smash hit, RE4 lays claim to survival/horror by incorporating the set pieces and themes that define the genre, but goes beyond rehashing what has worked in the past. Game designers drew more liberally from the canon of generic horror conventions - in essence, creating the quintessential survival/horror gaming experience by mirroring what's made horror movies so successful. It is by examining these generic elements that we can come to a better understanding of how and why RE4 took such a monumental step in defining a genre and redefining what genre in gaming can be.
Genre is about economy. By sharing a mutual language, creators and consumers agree to communicate things that would only waste valuable exposition time. This concept makes genre an even more powerful tool in gaming because, unlike films, which are passively viewed, the space of the interaction is the space of the story. Designers, therefore, must rely more heavily on our shared assumptions when integrating plot into the gameplay.
In genre-based films, we identify with onscreen characters that act against common sense or social norms with an expectation of future actions that either reward or punish that behavior. When our expectations are met, we receive genre pleasure.
Think about how many times you've sat and watched a slasher film with someone only to hear them complain, "Why is she going into the woods all by herself?!" In reality, we know why the character insists on wandering off alone. In fact, we expect her to wander off alone, and it is through these expectations and their accompanying fulfillment - when the unsuspecting scream queen gets hacked to pieces - that we derive pleasure from watching genre-based films.
In much the same way, games are developed to match consumers' expectations. In fact, one might argue that virtually every narrative game is built around the idea of affording the gamer as much genre pleasure as possible.
Take Grand Theft Auto. We all know that the rampant violence in GTA contradicts virtually every moral statute of our society. Nevertheless, when we take control of the character, spraying bullets and performing sordid tasks, we get satisfaction from our actions. This is because, in the game's diegesis, our actions are not just warranted, they're expected. Genre pleasure, that warm feeling you get when you see a dead hooker on the ground, is our reward for breaking free of our social constraints in an exercise in fantasy.
In film, the ability to provide genre pleasure can be the difference between continued box-office success and failure. Today, the horror genre remains a draw for a number of reasons; chief among these is the theme of the return of the repressed. Horror incorporates many of the hidden desires and drives that permeate our unconscious mind. The death drive, the expression of infantile narcissism and the breakdown of "family values" all have their part to play here. Horror turns a mirror on our innermost fears and anxieties, and by exposing our own frailties, allows us a respite to carry on with our daily lives.